Simply put, the world has magic, though it would be considered "science" by the world itself. This first section is going to provide a background for how the magic works.

"Spells" can be cast via some medium (usually paper) which have the spell written on them. A spell fully describes some kind of interaction via symbols on the paper - the symbols required are exact and can be considered a "language of their own". In other words, you can't write a spell in a different cultural language such as English. "Sorcerers" are people who are capable of writing spells, but normal every-day people are capable of using them. There is no "special ability" that sorcerers have that regular people don't, other than simply the knowledge of the symbols and language used to create spells.

I think it would be clearest if I first give an example of a "fireball" spell - which shoots a flaming ball of fire towards a target. Only one chemical can be provided by a spell, and in the fireball instance this chemical would likely be some form of pitch or oil. The spell must fully describe the chemical makeup of the oil, as well as its interaction with the oxygen in the air which creates the flame. As part of that, its initial velocity relative to the medium the spell is located on also needs to be described.

When the fireball spell is cast, there is no actual oil which appears in the air. But, the effects described in the spell still take place. This means that the oxygen in the air still turns into CO2, and heat in the form of fire is still released - looking like a ball of fire is flying through the air. The spell describes the initial chemical makeup and interaction taking place, but once the "fireball" hits a target, it would continue acting as if the target had been hit with a ball of burning oil, but without the oil actually materially appearing.

If any of the created chemical is still in its initial form when the spell's interaction ends, the spell is "disspelled", and that leftover material no longer acts as though it were there. The medium which the spell is on is typically consumed at this point. There are methods to keep that from happening, defined within the spell itself, but these methods are not commonly known or used.

If a spell is not accurate, that is, if it attempts to replace more chemicals or if the interaction is not described in a way that actually works, any number of things could happen once the spell is cast, depending on the nature and severity of the mistake. "Spell Testing" is incredibly dangerous, especially for sorcerers who aren't all that great at sorcery.

As you can imagine, even just this simple fireball spell would be very difficult to create the first time, but is capable of being copied after that.

tl:dr version: spells are written on paper with specific symbols, but not all symbols are known by every sorcerer, anybody can cast them, an incorrect spell can do anything from fizzle, to kind-of-work, to explode, paper is destroyed afterwards in 99% majority of cases

The society in question is end-of medieval level, but obviously paper and writing tools are more important (and thus, more effort is spent to have them on hand) since spells can be quite valuable to have around. It can also be assumed that they have a great deal more knowledge about how chemicals interact with each other compared to what our own histories suggest. How would sorcerers attempt to prevent people (or even competing sorcerers!) from attempting to "copy" their sold one-use spells?

  • $\begingroup$ How are the spells actually cast? Not by just reading the spell? $\endgroup$ – Samuel Dec 17 '15 at 22:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Samuel They must invoke the spell with a phrase or physical motions/rituals, defined within the spell itself - but typically this is just a couple words or so: "I invoke fireball" (prevent accidental casts, yet remain short, is typically the goal with the phrase). Presumably a part of selling the spell is giving the person the activation phrase, which only activates if the person who said the phrase is holding the scroll. $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Dec 17 '15 at 22:39
  • $\begingroup$ Is there any limit to how often a spell scroll can be used? For example, would it be destroyed after one use, require time to recharge, draw upon the caster's energy, or have no limits? $\endgroup$ – Darcinon Dec 17 '15 at 23:10
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    $\begingroup$ Dweomer Rights Management? $\endgroup$ – Studoku Dec 18 '15 at 2:11
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    $\begingroup$ What counts as "Only one chemical"? Things like oil tend to be, and pitch definitely is, composed of a mixture of lots of different types of molecules. And what counts as "a spell"? Could one write two spells that are intended to activate simultaneously to produce the effects of a more complicated substance composed of multiple "chemicals"? $\endgroup$ – Logan R. Kearsley Jul 30 '17 at 3:30

18 Answers 18


Treat the spells as calligraphy, where the how of writing matters as much as the what.

Perhaps the textual content of the spell is an easily understandable language, so that the commoners can read the spell and understand what they're about to cast. However, the part that brings the spell alive is a bit harder to teach. There's something in the way you draw the lines that makes the spell work. Draw them improperly, and you end up with a piece of paper with a very weak spell on it, or perhaps even a dud.

We tend to think of communication in terms of the text. If I say "Hello, how are you?" we tend to presume that was the content of the message. However, if we speak that phrase, we also convey a massive amount of information in our tone and pace. That same sentence can mean anything from "I'm so pleased to see you" to "I am a drone who has to say the same greeting to everyone" to *ahem* "Hello, Clarice."

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One of the fascinating aspects of this non-textual content is that it is very dependent on having a cohesive message. Try to say something pleasantly, but pause at the wrong spot, and the message turns insulting, "Umm... Hello.... how are you?" This is very contrary to the text, where I can write "Hlelo, hov r yu?" and get a lot of the message across, despite massive errors.

To make this into a magical process, let's say the way you draw each line matters. There are no such thing as "mistakes," just changes in balance caused by a change in line width or curvature. Sorcers are good at walking the fine line of this balance to depict the correct emotional content for the spell. You could try to copy a spell, but you'd make some mistake near the beginning (you're not perfect) and you may not know enough to understand how to change the symbol to balance that mistake out.

The best example I can think of is Chinese caligraphy. Consider the character for Qi, lifeforce, 氣. Its etymology is believed to be from the word for breath. As written here, it's pretty stale. It's just a word. Its the calligrapher that brings it alive in the artist's particular way:

Qi Qi Qi

You can imagine that these three versions of "vital energy" may have quite substantially different effects, though all of them would clearly involve use of life energy to do it.

  • $\begingroup$ Is there a command to make STack Exchange scale them? $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Dec 17 '15 at 23:22
  • $\begingroup$ I didn't think so, but then I found this. Always learning new things here, lol $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Dec 17 '15 at 23:25
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    $\begingroup$ Combine this with the 'special composition of the ink' answer and I think you're as close as you're gonna get to a perfect solution to the issue. This means that in order to reproduce a spell, you need two factors of 'authentication': something you know (the language that makes up the spell) and something you have (the exact composition of the ink required for the spell to work). I feel that any other solutions would affect the reliability of the spells in such a way that would be detrimental to their popularity. $\endgroup$ – Cronax Dec 18 '15 at 15:19

From what I read, the problem you have with spells is most of the times the same problem people has with software development and client authentication nowadays.

Your problem is called replay attack in software security. In networking security: a replay attack is when a user sends a request to a server and, even when it is encrypted, a man-in-the-middle of the connection between you and the server sends the exact same data, and the SSL secret has not yet been renegotiated.

The solution is using a form of nonce (a token used only once and created by you) in your spells and somehow connect your scroll instance to a kind of akashic pocket record (it is said there's something called akashic record that contains the whole memories of the universe and dead people, in some new-age-styled cultures today) which remembers the valid, available, and used nonces you authorize in your scrolls.

The nonce is a special token you would specify to make the spell work, say the ink, calligraphy, a QR code or whatever you want. Perhaps, since you don't write the same spell in the exact same way, you could use a kind of meta-spell to register them in your pocket akashic record, like when you develop software and sign your hashes to make them unique and verifiable.

You must ensure:

  1. The scroll will never be materially copied atom-by-atom by another spell. Somehow you must ensure that (say: protect the scroll with a kind of err... entropic, force which would affect the normal 3-dimensional space, but would not affect higher dimensions interactions, which could connect to your pocket akasha if your plot allows more than 3 dimensions).
  2. The same scroll (or nonce) cannot be used twice.

For this to work, since you plan to sell your spells, you will be somehow linked to the sold spells, as paid software usually involves a license server, so ensure nobody can track you reverse-traversing such mechanism (don't know if your plot defines a kind of meta-magic).

But remember something: There's no something like 100% security anywhere. There will be always a failure point somehow, specially with magic.

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    $\begingroup$ The apparent oxymoron of a "pocket akashic record" does my head in. +1! $\endgroup$ – user867 Dec 18 '15 at 3:34

The simplest way is to incorporate the ink into the spell. Using any other ink rather than his own secret recipe would result in undefined behaviour.

If it is not possible, he should resort to traditional authentication techniques of the time, such as seals and signatures - which again must be intrinsic part of the spell.

  • $\begingroup$ I like the simplicity, especially since I think it would be highly effective for preventing non-sorcerers. For other sorcerers, who can probably pick out the "validation" portion of the spell, I'm not sure it would be as useful, but I think this could be combined with some other methods. $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Dec 17 '15 at 23:30
  • $\begingroup$ The problem with this is what DoubleDouble highlighted -- it's basically the same as games secured with serial numbers. If the end-user is provided the lock, they can reverse-engineer a key. Luis Masuelli's "license-server" style solution is a lot more complicated, but also a lot more resistant to attack. $\endgroup$ – Wingman4l7 Dec 17 '15 at 23:41
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    $\begingroup$ It depends if the Validation is incorporated into the actual spell-works. Imagine I have a tiny bit of oil in my Ink and would formulate the spell not with "burn like oil" but with "burn like the third substance in this ink" so you ink mixture actually decides how the spell works.... If someone wants to copy your spell, they essentially have to reinvent it $\endgroup$ – Falco Dec 18 '15 at 8:49

You can protect your spells with Diabolical Rune Management.

Similar to Luis's answer, the problem at hand has much in common with software piracy and copyright infringement (since the underlying base issue is very much identical).

Merely encrypting the text of the spell or writing the spell in increasingly arcane languages to prevent other wizards from reading it would not help if the spellware pirate is capable of copying the entire spell wholesale. However, we can look into existing anti-piracy techniques.

The media on which the scroll is to be copied can be one way to defeat spellware piracy. By making the spell check the type of scroll it is being run on, and refusing to run if the type of scroll is incorrect, a rudimentary form of DRM can be implemented. This is similar to software which requires that CDs be inserted into the drive before the program runs.

Alternatively, a form of sympathetic magic link can be used to link the spell's casting to the Master Spell in your mage workshop. Serial numbers embedded in each spell would ensure that each spell can only be cast once, after which the breaking of the sympathetic link would render all further copies with the same serial number inactive. This is similar to programs which rely on contacting a central server for serial number activation.

However, it has to be stated that customer satisfaction is also an extremely important point for spellware entrepreneurs. A spell that does not cast when a customer needs it to (for example, an adventurer with fireball spells in the middle of a dungeon) could potentially lead to huge liability lawsuits.

Other reasons not to use Diabolical Rune Management techniques also exist. For example, a spellware pirate can produce a pirated spell that is guaranteed to cast, even if your scrolls are wet or if your akashic/sympathetic magic link is disrupted. These spells would likely fetch a higher price than your protected spells, leading you to run out of business.

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    $\begingroup$ Each spell scroll could also have a hidden serial number encoded into the text and the space-time continuum won't allow a spell with the same serial number to be cast twice. That would also explain why scrolls are single-use. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Dec 18 '15 at 12:10
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    $\begingroup$ Hahahahaha I would reserve the "Diabolical" term to the actually existent DRM implementation xD. You could use the term "Demiurgic" (since the magic transforms the reality). $\endgroup$ – Luis Masuelli Dec 18 '15 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ Even better!! Dweomer Right Management, for those in touch with D&D, as said by @Studoku $\endgroup$ – Luis Masuelli Dec 18 '15 at 20:58

Here are some methods that may work, depending what you want to be possible.

Make the spell harder to read or copy correctly.

  • Use some sort of invisible ink. Even better, use both invisible ink and visible ink, so that if only the visible ink is copied, the spell will be a dud or backfire.
  • Cover the spell with something difficult to remove. It could be paint or another layer of paper with a dud spell written on the surface (and the real spell inside written in invisible ink for even more security). If the spell is valuable enough, you could even encase the scroll in a metal box. The covering/encasing could even have a spell put on it to make it even more secure.
  • Use a spell to make the spell scroll impossible to read. An illusion spell or a shrinking spell could work, although if there is a shrinking spell then surely a re-enlarging spell exists.

Make the spell impossible to reuse.

  • Make the spell scroll act as a proxy to another scroll that you have in a secure location. When the scroll is used, both it and the scroll it is linked to will be destroyed. That way, if someone copies the scroll and uses the original, the copy will be rendered useless. If it uses an ID system to link then somebody could try to copy it and change which spell it is linked to, but the chances are that it wouldn't link to anything, and they wouldn't know if it works or not until they use it. If it is linked in a less computer-sciencey manner like "the spell scroll which was made with the same sheet of paper as this one," then there would be no way to copy it without access to the other scroll.
  • Similar to the above, make each scroll have a unique feature, and destroy all other spells with that feature when used. This would be fairly easy for even an amateur to bypass though, because they would only need to identify what part of the spell is functioning as an ID and change that.
  • If you don't want anyone else to be able to use a spell, make it only work for you. Have it check for your presence, or if that's too abstract, check for the presence of some unique item that you always carry or feature that you have.

all good answers, but I think they may overthinking the problem. There is a much simpler solution.

opening the scroll is part of casting it. The scroll comes sealed and the act of opening it to read invokes part of the spell. After you do this you get 20 seconds or so to speak the activation to cast the spell properly. If you don't the spell will dissolve anyways after the 20 seconds are up.

I say 20 seconds, but you could likely expand this to minutes or more if the spell is complicated, 15 minutes of copying the spell may still be a fraction of the time it takes to record it if the spell is complex enough.

in any case, this allows a normal person to cast the spell without problem. However, anyone trying to copy it will have the spell destroy itself before they get much detail; unless they can write a spell to copy the spell automatically; but at that point you have assembly line spell production and the rest of your world is pretty hugely changed.

If every day folks complain about your copy right protection point out the danger of a single line getting smudged or, worse, someone intentionally modifying it. You don't want to allow the potential for accidental or intentional tampering since it can have lethal results, so the spell destruction feature can be claimed to be for their own safety.

edit: As a small side note I would say that the words for casting the scroll are written on the inside of the scroll itself, in normal English; or on the outside of the scroll and/or whatever the scroll is sealed in if you can't write anything other then the spell-language on the scroll itself. This way people that buy the scroll don't have to worry about remembering the phrase. A two part activation, physical opening of scroll and speaking of the word, help ensure no accidental cast by doing either part alone. plus, it is in keeping with how all kinds of fiction and fantasy does scrolls, you open the scroll, read a few gibberish words, and magic happens :)

edit 2: to make it clear I'm suggesting that sorcerer's make this part of the spell. In theory one may have a spell that they write that doesn't work this way and is activated by simply speaking the word, mostly for open source spells. I imagine someone having a simple spell chiseled into a tool that is activated by a standard word may not be uncommon, a few short simple spells that proved quite effective may be common for certain tools. This could also be the basis for magical swords and the like. To keep the spell on your magical sword secret your then have to use one of the tricks others suggested, to tie the spell to the specific sword.

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    $\begingroup$ A spell which turns Iron to Gold! I bought it from some traveling sorcerer! See all this Iron I spent my life savings on? Watch this! *breaks the seal, unrolls the scroll, announces the activation phrase loudly,* "I'm an idiot!".. nothing happens. (Really though, I may end up accepting this one.. simple and effective for medieval times) $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Dec 18 '15 at 21:07
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    $\begingroup$ @DoubleDouble lol. of course this would be a valid issue for any spell, the every day buyers of the spell can't be expected to understand it any more then your grandmother can be expected to understand the source code of facebook; it doesn't stop them from using facebook. And yes, it doesn't stop scammers or phishers from trying to get the naive to click on their program that does something different. Besides, the idiot who bought the spell deserved it for not realizing the spell made no economic sense to be sold and would just destroy the market if it did work :P $\endgroup$ – dsollen Dec 18 '15 at 21:49
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    $\begingroup$ You don't even have to open the spell. Casting instructions could be on the outside. You don't read the actual contents according to the OP (am I right, @DoubleDouble ?). And you could make the spell invoke Fire Blast when opened. $\endgroup$ – user31389 Dec 19 '15 at 16:19
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    $\begingroup$ @user31389 Yes, don't have to read actual contents $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Dec 19 '15 at 17:03

Poor penmanship. (only 100% serious.)

Seriously, if you can't write scrolls in any language other than the special magic language, any kind of symbolic cryptography is also ruled out, it seems, and you're down to hiding your scrolls. Maybe write them on canvas in ink, paint over them with acrylic, and chip it off when you need to use it? Under a false panel in your travel wagon? A spellbook with very thick pages, with important spells on thinner pages stuck together so they can't be recovered without use of a spell that distributes a weak solvent between the pages so they can be separated without damaging the writing?

Trapping them might work, too. Poisons that are absorbed dermally? Can you set up a magical effect to be triggered by a later non-magical action? If you can, you might be able to have spell scrolls that self-destruct if unrolled without first disabling the self-destruct spell.

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    $\begingroup$ Paint over them with acrylic? Sounds like a medieval scratch-off lottery ticket ;) $\endgroup$ – Wingman4l7 Dec 17 '15 at 23:35
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    $\begingroup$ It is an interesting point though. I hadn't considered whether spells would still work if something else was applied on top of the ink which blocked the spell's text from being shown. (yet didn't actually mess up the text) $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Dec 17 '15 at 23:37
  • $\begingroup$ I'm amused that you suggest poor penmanship, and I suggest calligraphy, and I don't think there's any reason to disagree with either answer! $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Dec 18 '15 at 1:48
  • $\begingroup$ I do think your suggestion of calligraphy is a slightly better solution. Poor penmanship requires a particular metaphysic that involves the intent of the writer vs. the content of the page. Calligraphy has an established set of practices that fix reference, whereas poor penmanship requires a charitable interpreter and a measure of context to fix reference. $\endgroup$ – SudoSedWinifred Dec 18 '15 at 2:58

Ok, so you're a sorcerer, and you want to sell spells that anyone can use, but you want them to keep coming back for more. No reusable spells unless you say so. Each spell contains words that describe the effects of the spell, using logic and chemistry. This is actually the key; or, rather, the lock. Use logic to describe the spell such that it can only be used in the way you intend, which includes only being used once. The key for every method is the phrase uttered to activate the spell.

Physical Verification

Each spell, as written, should incorporate the paper on which it was written. Paper is easy to come by, but no two sheets are the same; parchment even more so. Fibers, blemishes, stains, and inconsistencies make every sheet of paper entirely unique. Thus, adding a phrase to the spell that requires the exact paper the spell was originally written on for it to function would lock the spell to that paper. If the words were copied, the paper they were copied onto would be different, ruining the spell. It may be possible to re-write the spell to remove the reference to paper, but if you're capable of doing that, you might as well write your own spells and save yourself the time and effort.

The pros of this method is that absolutely, positively no one will copy your spell. If they understand it, they won't need to; if they don't, they won't be able to decipher it. Either way, rather than copying the spell, they would need to write a new, slightly different spell to make it work.

The cons are that this spell will be unique for every sheet it's printed on, and as such will take time to write each one individually.

Encryption and Remote Verification

Each spell, when written, is encoded with a special key phrase, randomly generated for each. The characters of the original spell, once decoded by the phrase, automatically activate. To a user, it will appear that the words are activated by the phrase. Without decrypting the spell, it's just a jumble of letters that mean nothing. This version is easily transferred from one paper to another; however, it remains a single-use spell. The key is the locked spell. Part of the locked spell describes a small object being destroyed; a specific pebble, for instance. Once the unlock phrase is used, the actual spell is unscrambled and activated, destroying the pebble before completing the spell. Once the pebble is destroyed, the spell cannot activate again.

The pros for this method are that the spell is double-encoded; not only will the single-use pebble keep the spell from being used more than once, the spell itself is hidden behind encryption.

The cons are that the pebbles will need to be stored somewhere, possibly with a timestamp when they are consumed, so you know when your users have fired their spell. Also, the spell may be copied, used, then the original paper sold. It won't work, which could give you bad publicity. Also, each sheet will be radically different, because of the encryption, which means mass production is very difficult. And finally, this requires several spells working together to work, meaning this is a very complicated work. It should only be used for very expensive spells.

Remote Access Magic

This combines the best parts from above into one useful, simple, and above all mass-producible method.

On your spellsheet, write two spells. At the top, a spell that activates the spell on the bottom half of the paper; at the bottom, the spell you are selling. As part of the second spell, destroy the entire paper on which it is written. After writing the spells, tear the paper in half; keep the half with the actual spell, and sell the top half of the paper. Anyone that copies that text will get nothing, since the paper they use won't have another spell at the bottom. Anyone, even powerful hackers - I mean, sorcerers - who attempts to use the spell will only be able to use it once, since the spell self-destructs. The method of self-destruction, along with the main spell, will remain entirely secret, because it will never leave your possession.

Pros of this method include hiding your spell entirely, being able to mass-produce pages as fast as your minimum-wage scribes can copy, and the ability to monitor when spells are used.

Cons include having to store the spells safely, and the fact that it does require two spells.

  • $\begingroup$ You're an IT engineer indeed :D $\endgroup$ – Luis Masuelli Dec 18 '15 at 14:57
  • $\begingroup$ Your "physical verification" category reminds me of an experiment from the University of Sussex in which a circuit was evolved such that it could only run on one specific chip. It would probably be a terrible idea to evolve spells (given their potentially-devastating effects) but it might be an interesting plot point to have a group trying to convince the world of how dangerous it is... Information about the Sussex experiment here: On the origin of circuits $\endgroup$ – Passage Apr 25 '16 at 17:39

Great question!

I would go for the idea making magic a kind of calligraphy like Cort Ammon suggested. One addition to that: Magic is a secret knowledge by obfuscation - Especially in worlds with magic that only require some special words of power the sorcerer will put those words of power in a context of elaborate non-sense to hide his secret knowledge. The same could go for text magic you describe.

Maybe a fireball can be cast with just one sign and sorcerers will write a whole lot of non-sense around it to obfuscate it. To prevent 1-1 copying like illiterate monks that copied the bible in medieval times you could add aspects like: It matters what kind of ink or pen you use; When and where the sign is written, in moon-light, in star-light of a special constellation/conjunction, etc.; In what order the lines of the sign are written.

This special process of writing will magically power up the sign of power. Like if the light of moon and stars is magically, then some light particles will linger in the sign. When using the spell they will be released. After that the sign will still be there but discharged.


You say the spell can only be cast once and you need to wait for its effects to pass before you can cast it again, hardcode that into the spell.

Approach the problem from entirely the other point of view, get the user to protect the scroll. Rather than the scroll being a copy of a standard spell, every spell is unique though the effect may well not be. A copy of the scroll is a copy of the same spell, this is going to interfere with preceding or subsequent casts of the spell.

For example, your spell casts a fireball, one fireball, the same fireball every time. You have a choice in your mechanics as to whether
(i) casting again fizzles the preceding cast, anyone with a scroll can cast but only the last caster will hit a target, or
(ii) you have to wait for it to end before casting again, anyone can cast but only the first caster hits a target.

The first option is more significant for spells with prolonged effects or defensive spells. The more copies are made the less effective or reliable it is, any copy at all significantly reduces the value of the scroll. This means that to have an effective spell scroll, the owner is going to be very careful not to allow copies.


Well, since you are a spellcaster with access to some sweet magic, why not protect your spellbook with some of that same magic?

For example, enchant the spellbook in such a way that the rightful owner can read it, but if an unauthorized person attempts to read it they will suffer a curse, or the spellbook will burst into flame and self destruct, or maybe the book teleports itself to a safe place, or it teleports the thief to the center of the sun. Different spellcasters would protect their spellbooks in different ways, depending on their personalities and talents.

On a side-note, this kind of magic system sounds a lot like computer programming. You have sorcerers/programmers that are just regular people with specialized knowledge. They develop their own spells/code in precise languages that are exact descriptions of procedures. Once created and written down, a spell/code can be cast/executed and copied by anyone. And society has evolved ways to freely share some spells in the interest of humanity (open source software), suppress the ones that are evil (computer viruses), and to varying degrees protect ones their creators want to keep secret (closed source, proprietary code).


In addition to several of the answers presented here, such as calligraphic skill and magical ink, I'd like to suggest that there might be some kind of time sensitive element to the act of formulating the spell scroll.

For instance, perhaps in order to create a spell, a Sorcerer needs to consult astrological charts and must incorporate specific elements that account for the geometries of celestial bodies at that moment in time in order for their inscriptions to bind the required magic.

If someone were to attempt to copy the scroll at a different time, those celestial geometries would have changed, and it would be impossible to imbue the scroll with magic as a result. That is to say, they would be copying geometries that were correct originally, but are no longer.


The first assumption to make is that most people are still illiterate, so being able to write down spells or read what is on the paper or whatever medium the spell is written on isn't going to be an issue for about 90% of the population.

For most of the 10% who are literate, probably 90% of them are not spell casters or magicians of any sort, so their application of literacy would be somewhat limited compared to how we see literacy; they can read and write enough to carry out accounting, or contractual arrangements for trade, or the secret ingredients for Coca Cola, but probably would not be very fluent in the language overall, and have limited reading and writing vocabularies. Reading Randall Munroe's "Thing Explainer" gives you a sense of what that might be like, Munroe (creator of XKCD) describes many things like the Saturn V rocket using a limited vocabulary of the 1000 or so most commonly used words in English (the rocket becomes the "thing goer upper"). Describing chemical equations or other natural phenomena to create magical effects like that would be rather...challenging.

Naturally there are going to be very literate people, such as the nobility, lords of the Church, lawyers and the professors at the Universities, but they can be dealt with in two ways: using an uncommon vernacular language (using Greek or Latin would do the opposite for this class of people, since they are all generally fluent in Latin and many in Greek), and to encode the spell using some sort of cypher.

A university educated person coming across the spell would see a page apparently covered in gibberish, and even if they were to deduce that it was some sort of coded message, they would probably spend a great deal of unproductive time applying their knowledge of cryptography to decipher a message they imagine is written in Latin or Greek, never thinking that it is actually in Occitan or something else. This would also help keep magical writing secret from rivals, especially if you go out of your way to learn and become fluent in a much different language than you grew up with (If you come from the south of France, someone may suspect that you know Occitan and try to decipher it that way. Knowing German or the Venetian dialect of Italian would cover your tracks fairly well in that case).

Since you are near the end of the Middle Ages, you will find most of these precautions will become much less effective with the introduction of the printing press, although being able to mass produce spell scrolls might actually be a bonus in some situations.

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    $\begingroup$ Do you need to be literate to duplicate a written document? I'll be I could duplicate a document written in Greek even though it's Greek to me. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Dec 17 '15 at 22:41
  • $\begingroup$ You'd need at least a minimal level of literacy to duplicate a document, i.e. you'd need to know the essential characteristics of characters in the alphabet. You'd need to be able to tell the difference between alpha and omicron, for instance. This can be difficult for even a person literate in a language without appropriate context. (If you think telling Os from 0s is hard on an NES password screen, where any instance of the same character is identical, try after I've written it down on a notepad. ;) ) $\endgroup$ – SudoSedWinifred Dec 17 '15 at 23:10
  • $\begingroup$ @SudoSedWinifred I don't think you do. Think about how a photocopier duplicates a document, it certainly can't read. Can you copy a drawing? Do you need to know what the drawing means to do that? $\endgroup$ – Samuel Dec 17 '15 at 23:56
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    $\begingroup$ @SudoSedWinifred I think you could, assuming the drawing is just pencil. The amount of effort just wouldn't be worth it. With an unlimited time limit and a reward of $100 million, would you still not be capable? $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Dec 18 '15 at 0:28
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    $\begingroup$ With unlimited time and a great reason for doing it... maaaaybe. I have a slight tremor. But for the illiterate scroll-copier with unlimited time and a good reason, learning to read and write the magical language would be an attractive candidate for a step in the process of learning to copy scrolls, if possible. But even if literacy were out of reach, I already conceded above it'd be merely exception. Though I might manage now if the ink were very dark and clear. Something that would be hard to read even through oiled paper would be defense enough against simple tracing. $\endgroup$ – SudoSedWinifred Dec 18 '15 at 0:41

The simplest method would be to replace a number of key words in the written record of the spell with a simple cipher, usually an initial letter or few letters of the correct word. When reciting or memorizing the spell the sorcerer knows from experience and training what word is to be substituted for the cipher text, but a non-spell caster would only rarely get them all correct. Interesting effects can be created by the Dungeon Master for almost perfect spells, ranging from being a dud; having less power or range, being mangled in some way; effecting an incorrect target; or even being (dangerously?) over powered in unusual circumstances.


This only works if you don't sell tons of copies of the spell:

What about some sort of spell obfuscation, where the spell is written in a much longer and more complicated format than is necessary. When a simple one page spell suddenly becomes forty pages long, it doesn't seem worth copying anymore. The author of the scroll could originally write on some sort of copy paper that would make several copies at a time, so that they wouldn't have to repeat the arduous work too often.

Another idea(which would actually complement my first one well) would be to have the scrolls only openable a single time after being written, before they crumbled to dust (or combusted, or something). Thus, copying would become extremely hard, and would probably end up destroying the original scroll, so that you've gained nothing through the copy.

  • $\begingroup$ Another wizard would be able to duplicate the copy spell though. $\endgroup$ – March Ho Dec 18 '15 at 10:26
  • $\begingroup$ Copy paper, not a copy spell. $\endgroup$ – Academiphile Dec 18 '15 at 10:28
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    $\begingroup$ A given spell has a certain value. I'm not sure why it would be worth it to the magician to invest the effort of writing a really long spell, but not worth it to a copier to do the same. $\endgroup$ – user16107 Dec 18 '15 at 14:32

The spell has two components - it can only be cast by someone who is attuned to a specific form and shape of magic. The first component is the attunement, the second is the casting of the spell from the scroll. Attunement without casting the spell is like wearing a security pass but not entering the building it allows you into- it simply has no effect. Trying to cast the spell without being attuned is like trying to walk into a secured building without the pass - nothing happens.

The attunement can be very specific to the spell, an arcane binding that relates this specific instance of the spell to the the person seeking to cast it. The spell itself is resolved and shaped by the attunement so that it can then be cast. Consequently one attunement does not allow someone to cast multiple scrolls.

The cast spell is written on the parchment of the scroll. The attunement spell is bound into the wax seal that holds the scroll closed. Whoever opens the scroll is able to cast it. Anybody else who gets hold of it after it is open is unable to. The attunement only endures for a short period and the scroll blanks itself or self immolates during casting.

Over time a talented sorceror may learn to master the attunements of others, but it is far easier to create your own attuned scrolls.


The spell is sealed (much like encryption)

When a sorcerer authors a spell onto paper, it is legible. When the spell is completed the sorcerer seals the magic with their life force binding the spell into the paper. When sold, the spell is no longer legible due to the seal. This can be viewed as a magic encryption of sorts - where the sorcerer that wrote the spell is the only one that can read its contents directly, but other sorcerers may still invoke it.

Alternatively, the scroll is rolled up and sealed with a magic "stamp". The scroll's magic can still be invoked but if the seal is broken the magic inside is released and it burns / self destructs.


I feel like everyone missed one thing here: magic is an extension of the user.

Let's say magic is part of a mage (not much of a stretch), part of their essence. In order to put a spell on a scroll, the mage has to put a bit of their very soul into the scroll. The words of the spell, the phrasing, and even the language of the spell is personal, unique, and specific to the mage. Let's break it down, shall we?

  1. Words The spell is written in words that the mage understands-the words come right out of their head. Everyone has a different way of speaking and therefore writing, and this is especially apparent in two things: cursive and shorthand. Cursive is used for signatures because A) it can be intricately personalized and B) signatures are relatively hard to copy (as compared to regular writing). Shorthand is used to abbreviate information using a symbolic format. When using one's own, unique shorthand, chances are someone else will not be able to crack the code unless they know you well-very well.

  2. Phrasing Taking what was stated above, it's not much of a stretch to say that everyone has their own unique language. This goes right into Point 3:

  3. Language The words of the spells are actually glyphs; the meaning and design of each glyph are determined by the unique language of the "writer"; in other words, the glyphs symbolize the unique meaning they ascribe to each word, how the writer understands the words and what they represent. This makes it nearly impossible (if not impossible) to interpret the glyphs since in order to do so you'd need to literally see the words as someone else does exactly. If you aren't the person who wrote the spell, you aren't the writer, so how would you see the spell exactly as they see it? Understanding someone else's unique perspective is one thing; seeing from that perspective is quite another.

This should outright stop any spell copying, as even if you were to use copying methods, you can't copy someone's unique perspective and thus, the symbolic glyphs are impossible to copy. You could try, but the resulting runes would be ineffective unless written by someone with the exact same perspective as the writer. If you don't understand it, you can't write it and cause an effect.


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